Recycling Detective: Carry-out Containers

February 1, 2008


Doing take-out? BYOC! (Bring your own containers.) Also “Can you recycle this?”
by Melissa Martin
Last month we learned the pitfalls of using polystyrene (Styrofoam). Many restaurants use polystyrene for hot beverages and foods. I decided to investigate some local restaurants to see what recyclable options they were giving us along with our food. Eating out is one of my favorite pastimes, but lately every time I go out to eat, I'm plagued by thoughts of what my leftovers are going to come in. And when I pick up take-out food there always seems to be an unpleasant surprise waiting for me in the bag. So what's a green foodie to do?

Many restaurants are aware of the issues concerning take-out containers and are trying to make responsible choices. Sage's Cafe, known for its organic and environmentally friendly approach to food, has the same approach when it comes to take-out. I recently met with manager Chad Anderson during their Sunday brunch. Watching all the delicious meals go out, I wished I was there for more then just an interview. "We use the Bio-Plus [take out containers] approved by the Green Restaurant Association," said Anderson. Bio-Plus containers are made from recycled paper and lined with a special wax which allows them to be recycled or composted. So you can feel good about using their containers as long as you are recycling them or composting them. Restaurants interested in making sure they are purchasing recyclable containers can go to

Most paper take-out containers can be recycled. Many times these are mixed materials (paper with plastic lining). While we have heard conflicting reports by officials on whether or not these items are recyclable, these paper products are getting recycled at the plant. (They will likely be recycled with cardboard instead of paper.) Many restaurants, including Cafe Trio and Market Street Grill, are now using these paper containers.

Plastics are another widely used recyclable container. Pinon Market uses plastic clamshell containers for take-out. These containers are reusable; just wash them out. When they break or wear out, recycle them. PF Changs and Pewii, its smaller sister restaurant, both use great plastic take-out containers. These containers are very durable and can be reused plenty of times before recycling them.

Another recyclable choice are tinfoil containers that are used at Barbacoa, Cafe Rio and The Bakery. These containers are recyclable along with the plastic lids that usually accompany them.

Delivery, anyone? Pizza containers are made from cardboard and are more then welcome in your blue bin.

When in doubt, call a restaurant ahead before ordering take-out or ask your server what take-out containers they use when you want to take your leftovers. If you see they're going to put your extra food in polystyrene (styrofoam), then don't take your food home. Or, if the food texture accommodates it, ask for it wrapped in wax paper, saran, aluminum foil-even a sandwich bag (which you can carry in your purse or pocket) may work just fine.

Make note of restaurants that give no options besides polystyrene. While you can still eat there, just don't get take-out. Almost all the restaurants I visited use polystyrene for their soups so make sure to ask. At Wild Oats, I did find that they use recyclable paper cups. Barbacoa also offers a nice plastic recyclable, reusable container for its soup.

A new type take-out container is now on the scene. Biodegradable polymers look like plastic and papery styrofoam, but are made from corn and sugar cane. Oasis Cafe and Wild Oats use biodegradable polymer products. Wild Oats also uses this product for their "plastic" bags.

When I first heard this I jumped for joy. But there are a few problems with the biodegradable polymers. They sound as if you could put them in your backyard composter or throw them in your trash and they would decompose like any vegetable. This is not the case. To compost, these containers need to be in a controlled environment that reaches 140 degrees for 10 days straight. Your backyard composter is not going to do the trick. Biodegradable polymers are said to have a life span of 20 years, but in a landfill they can last anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years just like regular plastics. By tossing biodegradable polymers in the trash we are also adding to landfill waste. Currently, there is no recycling program for these polymers from our homes. Also, the corn or sugar cane from which they are made was probably not organically grown, so add in the petrochemically derived fertilizers and pesticides as well as the fuel for the machines that cultivated those crops-to say nothing of what corn does to the soil. It's really no less than strip-mining another precious natural resource.

Since most of the population doesn't recycle (CATALYST readers excluded), some think it's better to have biodegradable polymers in our landfills then styrofoam or plastic. The concept of biodegradable polymers is new and growing. Instead of using oil, a nonrenewable resource, as plastic does, these products use a resource we can grow again and again. Their production also emits less greenhouse gases than the production of plastic. There is still a lot to be learned about biodegradable polymers and a lot of questions to ask. It would irresponsible not to look further into these items as an option. It would also be irresponsible to think of them as the cure-all.

All hope for sustainable take-out is not lost. "We have plenty of people who bring in their own containers for take-out and catering events. Some even bring in their own to-go bags," said Anderson from Sage's Cafe. Pinon Market has the same philosophy. "We do get customers that bring in their own take-out containers, and we are more than happy to accommodate them," said Victoria Topham, owner

Folks, this is the direction we all need to be headed. Again, let's rethink! Bringing your own containers from home, whether plastic, glass or reusable take-out containers, is the best option. The second best option is to not take food home at all. The final option is to take your food home in a recyclable container, reuse it if possible and then recycle it. Since many restaurants use polystyrene (Styrofoam) for to-go soup, my advice is bring your own container or "No soup for you!"

It seems the deeper we delve into the recycling bin, the more complicated it gets. While some choices are better than others, the only choice that will make a significant impact is bringing our own containers for take-out and leftovers, which takes more time and effort on our part. (How often are we remembering our cloth bags when we go grocery shopping? Ahem.) For some restaurants this will require a little adjustment, but it's not impossible.

We are called a "throw-away society," a "consumer culture." For so long, we have just accepted things the way they are, as if there are no other options. Let's vow to change that view. Let's become "the culture of change and sustainability."

" You must be the change you want to see in the world."

-Mahatma Gandhi

"Can you recycle this?"

The Recycling Detective answers your most difficult disposal dilemmas.

Q: I have a small microwave oven that fell off the shelf it was sitting on and broke. I don't feel comfortable throwing it into the trash and have been trying to find out if there is a place that recycles that type of item?-Chris

A: I found two locations that will accept microwaves, but neither is in Salt Lake: Guaranteed Recycling Experts will recycle your microwave for a fee of $10. Phone them at 801-386-2533. Stone Castle Recycling will accept your microwave for free. They are located at 2675 Wadman Drive in Ogden, tel. 801-731-9444.

Q: Is all aluminum ok to be put out for recycling? Aluminum foil, pie tins, etc?-Jim

A: Yes! You can recycle aluminum foil and pie tins, even the actual tin ones. You can also recycle the foil lids from your yogurt and cream containers. Basically any foil and tin including cans is recyclable and getting recycled at the plant. Remember: Don't worry about washing your foil off; the plant doesn't care, and they would rather you save water.

A reader's suggestion

At the downtown law firm where I work, we get two kinds of Styrofoam that can be reused, and I try to make sure we do. Possibly others might benefit from this info or reminder.

The big white Styrofoam that comes around appliances and electronics (TVs, computers, etc.) can be taken to MARKO FOAM, 2900 West 1100 South (approximately). They don't take styrofoam cups or packing peanuts-just the big awkward stuff that surrounds furniture and TVs.

Ask at whatever mailing facility you use- they may be glad to resue your packing peanuts. (We took ours to Mailboxes, Etc.)-Rex

If you have a burning question for the recycling detective, email and we'll get to the bottom of it.